Courts & Litigation

“A Date Certain”: Trump New York Criminal Trial Date Set for March 25

Tyler McBrien
Thursday, February 15, 2024, 7:42 PM
A dispatch from Justice Juan M. Merchan’s courtroom
Donald Trump Departing From New York (Shealah Craighead,; Public Domain)

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

It is all very orderly and mundane.

Only a few things about the day’s proceedings suggest its historic conclusion: a date set for the first criminal trial of a former president.

The reporters, of course, know the truth. “This story keeps us in business,” one of those lined up in the queue says to another. “Without this, you wouldn’t have a job. I wouldn’t have a job.” What else would compel someone to line up in 18-degree weather at 3:45 a.m.? 

But there are relatively few other signs in evidence of the extraordinary nature of the proceedings set to begin shortly in a courtroom called Part 59 of the New York County Supreme Court.

One of them, as it turns out, is sitting next to me. A young tourist—one of only three members of the “public,” along with me and a reporter at NewsNation, to make it into the courtroom itself. When we sit down in the gallery, he leans over and asks me which side was for the “plaintiff.” Later, after Justice Juan M. Merchan adjourns the proceedings and Trump starts to walk out, the young tourist starts clapping. Police officers quickly yell at and silence him.

Some reporting suggests he is clapping for Trump. I have my doubts. From what I can tell, the person is just a tourist who has never been in a courtroom before and is genuinely excited to see a trial—and to see Trump in person. From the genuine look of confusion and embarrassment on his face when the police shut him up, I actually think he believes everyone is supposed to clap at the end of a hearing—like at a concert.

There is also a heavy police and Secret Service presence in the courtroom—at one point, I count ten cops, along with a handful of Secret Service—all with only about 65 people in the gallery.

But other than that, and the presence of the former president of course, you could almost confuse the day’s proceedings with a normal motions hearing in a normal white collar criminal case.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who won the distinction a year ago of filing the first criminal charges against a former president, enters the courtroom at around 9:15 a.m. and takes his seat quickly without a word or nod to anyone. Several more quiet minutes pass. I spot a reporter shopping for new shoes on his laptop. It’s cold in the courtroom. A bunch of people keep their winter jackets on. Another observer is still wearing his gloves.

At 9:30 am, the exact time the hearing is meant to start, Trump walks through the courtroom doors and up the aisle, pointing and nodding in acknowledgment to someone seated with the press.

Trump takes a seat at a large table with his defense team. Across the aisle, at a much smaller table, the asymmetry of which will come up later in the hearing, sit the prosecution, counsel for the people of New York.

Three photographers shuffle in at 9:33 a.m. and snap photographs of Trump from a position just beside the empty bench. Trump doesn’t look at the cameras, instead keeping his hands on the table in front of him and looking ahead, almost motionless. He remains in this position, more or less, for the duration of the one hour and 33 minute hearing. 

It’s now 9:35. We all rise for the People of the State of New York vs. Donald J. Trump

The case, recall, concerns allegations that Trump arranged hush money payments to Stephanie Clifford, otherwise known as Stormy Daniels. These undisclosed payments, the state alleges, violated both tax law and campaign finance rules. The statement of facts filed alongside the Manhattan district attorney’s indictment alleges that Trump, along with his lawyer Michael Cohen, the Trump organization’s chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg, AMI CEO David Pecker, and others, paid Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal $130,000 and $150,000, respectively, not to go public with stories of potentially campaign-damaging affairs they had with then-candidate Trump—who then conspired to falsify business records in order to cover up the payments. 

Justice Merchan takes the bench and greets each side. He has already presided over one criminal trial against the Trump Organization in 2022, a fact that the prosecution will bring up several times over the objections of the defense.

“Good morning, your honor, Todd Blanche,” says the former president’s lead counsel to Justice Merchan. Blanche says he is joined by three co-counsel, Susan Necheles, Emil Bove, and Gedalia Stern. He then adds, “Also with President Trump.” 

Joshua Steinglass rises for the prosecution and introduces his co-counsel, Matthew Colangelo, Susan Hoffinger, Christopher Conroy, and Becky Mangold.  

Justice Merchan first announces that he has issued an opinion, about which he cuts to the chase: “In substance, defendant’s motion to dismiss has been denied.” He mentions that parties were given copies of his decision at the beginning of the hearing. 

Turning now to the “issue of trial,” Justice Merchan begins by way of prelude by mentioning two conversations, on Feb. 7 and Feb. 8, he had with Judge Tanya Chutkan, the U.S. district court judge presiding over Trump’s Jan. 6-related trial in D.C., to coordinate scheduling of the trials. “As you know, there are a lot of moving parts in the D.C. case,” he says. “Really nobody knows what’s going to happen and when it’s going to happen.”

At least with respect to this case, Justice Merchan makes the what and when a whole lot clearer. “At this point I can inform you that we’re moving ahead to jury selection on March 25.”

Blanche immediately rises to object, and something in Justice Merchan’s demeanor suggests he faces an uphill battle. Blanche protests that, since August, the defense has repeatedly asked for a conference with Justice Merchan to discuss the trial date, only to face serial denials. Each time, Blanche complains, the judge promised to discuss the matter at this hearing.

“What I said was we’d be in a better position to discuss it today, and we can do that,” Merchan replies calmly.

Blanche nonetheless begins his plea, calling the trial date of March 25 a “grave injustice,” and laying out the “completely different landscape” that Trump faces now versus when Justice Merchan last scheduled trial of this case back on May 11, 2023. In what is likely not news to just about anyone in the courtroom, Blanche reminds Justice Merchan that, since then, Trump has been indicted in three different cases, each in a different jurisdiction, each with different facts and different theories of proof. All of those cases, says Blanche, include millions of pages of discovery, which Trump and his attorneys have a constitutional right to have adequate time to review. 

After a bit more back and forth, Justice Merchan remains unmoved. He asks whether Blanche wants to put anything else in the record. Blanche launches back into his already well established objections, but Merchan cuts him off.

“The problem is you’re not telling me anything that you didn’t already include in your prior request for a conference,” Justice Merchan fires back. “You’re also omitting from the record that you’re making today what my responses were.” As Merchan starts recounting those reasons, Blanche tries to interject, but Merchan stops him with a polite, “Let me finish.” Merchan resumes, but Blanche cuts in again, this time about a conflicting trial date in Florida, where Blanche also represents Trump. This time Merchan offers a much less polite, “Stop interrupting me—please." 

Justice Merchan returns to the trial date at hand. “I’ve made clear to you, when you accepted representation on the other cases, you knew about this case, you willingly chose to accept those cases,” Merchan says, referencing Blanche’s decision to take up Trump’s Florida case as well. “I had made clear that this was a date certain—March 25 was a date certain. You proceeded at your own peril.” 

Blanche continues on his earlier tack: “In every one of your letters, you indicated to me that we would have a discussion about scheduling today.”

“And we’re having it,” Merchan replies. 

Blanche quips that it’s not a discussion when one party begins the proceedings by declaring the trial date set. He has a point here. The hearing does have a bit of a decision-first-argument-second quality.

“What I want to hear is something you haven’t already told me,” Merchan cuts back in, his patience wearing thin at this point. “That’s what I want to hear. Tell me something that you haven’t already told me in the letters. Tell me something you haven’t already said today.”

Making no progress on his argument for delaying the New York trial because of scheduling complications with Trump’s other trials, Blanche now turns instead to the scheduling complications arising from the presidential election. He mentions that from March 1 through when we expect this trial to end, by Blanche’s count, there are 42 primaries and caucuses.

“By starting this trial on March 25, now that the primary dates are set, it is,” Blanche pauses for a second, seemingly to tee himself up for a longshot, “and President Trump says this all the time, and the media makes fun of him, but it is completely election interference to say, you are going to sit in this courtroom in Manhattan when there is no reason for it.” 

At the moment Blanche says “election interference,” Merchan produces a tissue from the bench and proceeds to blow his nose.

Finally, Blanche gestures behind him toward Bragg and claims that even the district attorney said on the record that there was no reason to start this trial in March. Sensing his time on this issue is running out, Blanche tries once more, this time his voice slightly raised and pleading: “What about his rights?” 

At this, Merchan cuts Blanche off and turns to the other side: “Let’s hear from the People then. People?”

Matthew Colangelo stands and launches into his reply to Blanche’s attempts to delay, which already seem dead in the water at this point. Colangelo suggests that a pattern has emerged from the defense, “of using the pendency of each proceeding in an attempt to try to evade accountability in any proceeding.” Then, as if driving the final nail in a coffin already buried, Colangelo quotes an email from Blanche on May 11, 2023, in which Blanche wrote to the prosecution, “If we start the trial on March 25, although still disruptive to the campaign, it will minimize the disruption” as a result of the relatively small number of primaries between March 25 and late April.


Undeterred, Blanche continues to angle for a delay, again referencing Trump’s upcoming trial in Florida. 

“Mr. Blanche, we can’t go on with this forever,” Justice Merchan replies wearily.

But Blanche seems to think that, indeed, we can, as he changes tack once more. Now, Blanche brings up the “outsized and extraordinary media saturation” New York City is experiencing right now as it relates to Trump, because of the attorney general’s other trial last fall and the more recent E. Jean Carroll civil trial. The latter case in particular, Blanche says, is potentially damaging to his client because it involved “salacious false allegations that President Trump was not allowed to contest at trial.”

“Tell me how that applies to this trial date,” Justice Merchan says. Blanche claims that this negative media coverage has reached such a saturation point in New York that selecting an impartial jury on March 25 would be impossible. “What’s the solution to that problem?” the judge asks.

Blanche’s answer, of course, is delay. “As time goes by, the media saturation goes by,” Blanche answers, asking that we return to the question of the trial date in early March.

“You think the saturation will be gone by then?" Justice Merchan asks, almost mockingly. The first modest laughter of the day ripples through the courtroom. “What if it’s not? What if we’re still getting the same saturation in April or May?”

Likely sensing defeat, Blanche abandons that line of argument, now turning to the more significant, “perhaps most significant” reason why a March 25 date is “unfathomable.” And what reason would that be? Well, not what, but who: Michael Cohen, a key witness in the trial, who just happened to have committed perjury in another trial two months ago, Blanche alleges. He asks, “How can we possibly go to trial when there’s a witness who committed perjury two months ago across the street?” Instead of conducting a trial, Blanche suggests that the district attorney’s office should be conducting an investigation—against Cohen.

Justice Merchan invites the prosecution to respond. If and when Michael Cohen testifies, Colangelo says, the defense will have an opportunity to cross-examine him at trial.

With Blanche failing to gain even a day of delay, Justice Merchan, now even more clearly exhausted by the issue of the trial date, asks the defense if they have anything to add to the record.

“I would like to talk about it all day, your honor,” Blanche jokes, as the day’s second round of laughter erupts, this one much louder than the first.

Even Justice Merchan smiles. “I’m sure you would,” he says in good humor. One person, however, does not appear to be laughing along: the defendant continues to look on silently. 

“I appreciate what you’re saying about your client’s constitutional rights,” Justice Merchan says to Blanche; he makes clear that he intends not to violate them. The tension between Justice Merchan and Blanche seems to fade slightly as both men realize that this matter, at least, is settled. Jury selection will begin on March 25.

Before turning to address other substantive issues, Justice Merchan wants to hammer out a few upcoming deadlines:  The defense reply to the People’s motion to quash subpoenas is due tomorrow, on Feb. 16. The motions in limine are due Feb. 22, and the replies to motions in limine on Feb. 29. The defense deadline to provide notice of intent to rely on the defense of advice of counsel is March 11, and so on.

“I feel like I’m maybe beating a dead horse,” Blanche starts, as he once again raises the potential conflicts that arise from his client’s other pending trial in Florida, which has an overlapping deadline on Feb. 22.

Justice Merchan seems to think that Blanche is, in fact, beating a dead horse. “Doesn’t he have other attorneys down there to represent him?” Justice Merchan asks rhetorically.

Blanche continues to ask for a few days of delay for the upcoming deadlines.

Steinglass, speaking on behalf of the dead horse, counters that delaying one deadline would cause a domino effect, pushing back the others. “At some point, we have to recognize that this case is proceeding on March 25,” he says.

It seems that point has now arrived, whether Blanche recognizes it or not.

The horse is still dead, but Justice Merchan now turns to the outstanding jury selection issues, which have added urgency with a date set next month for trial. The judge mentions that in the People v. The Trump Organization trial, over which he also presided, he initially suggested that if jurors raised their hands in affirmation that they believed that they could not be fair or impartial, they could be dismissed immediately, without further question. He adds this was not something he normally did. In that trial, the defense rejected the suggestion, instead questioning every single juror before excusing them, which “was not the most efficient use of time.” Justice Merchan asks whether this would be a prudent approach for the current trial.  

Blanche suggests what he calls a “hybrid approach,” allowing for juror questioning, because he “very much anticipate[s], if appropriate, making a venue change motion.”

Sensing either hypocrisy or inconsistency in the defense’s “hybrid” suggestion to jury selection, Steinglass rises to say that he finds it “ironic” that defense counsel expresses concerns about the duration of the trial while at the same time suggesting to “individually voir dire every juror who is content to leave if they say they can’t be fair and impartial”—a proposition Steinglass calls a “time consuming charade.”

“I’m not trying to be ironic,” Blanche says, to his credit, without a hint of irony. “Selecting a jury, a fair and impartial jury, is not a charade.” 

But Justice Merchan seems to be decided on this issue as well, worried that such a hybrid approach would leave “too much room for error.” He now turns to address specific questions on the jury questionnaire that are in dispute.

First up is Question 10, which asks jurors to select from a list which media organizations they visit, read, watch, or listen to. It’s not the question itself that’s disputed, but rather the list, which includes the New York Times, New York Daily News, Google, Facebook, Twitter, MSNBC, and Fox News, among many, many others. The prosecution proposes adding Tucker Carlson, Ben Shapiro, Infowars, and other outlets and pundits that skew heavily conservative. 

The defense says that if the court is inclined to include these additional conservative shows, they will propose the inclusion of additional liberal shows. But with the exception of Fox News and a few others, the list already skews liberal, the prosecution retorts.

“It’s skewed one way because there’s a lot more liberal media out there,” Blanche says as he shakes his head, chuckling to himself. Justice Merchan won’t rule on this matter yet, but he suggests eliminating the list entirely, which gets nods of approval from both sides.

We continue to proceed through several of the questions in dispute, with both sides raising issues with different aspects of proposed questions. Question 29 asks jurors if they support or follow organizations such as QAnon, the Proud Boys, or ANTIFA. Another question, adapted from the E. Jean Carroll case, asks jurors whether they think the 2020 election was stolen (Blanche claims that half the country believes this). Question 33 asks whether jurors think Trump is being treated unfairly by the courts (Blanche again produces data in his retort claiming that 80 percent of people in the country think there’s some unfairness in the court system). Question 36 asks about jurors’ desire to see Trump convicted, and question 39 asks whether jurors have read or listened to recent books or podcasts from Mark Pomerantz and Michael Cohen that relate to the trial. At Question 40, which asks whether jurors have read or listened to books written by the defendant, who continues to look on silently as Justice Merchan reads out the repetitive titles of Trump’s oeuvre in quick succession: The Art of the Deal, How to Get Rich, Why We Want You to Be Rich, The Way to the Top, Think Like a Billionaire. The list goes on like this, as a few laughs from the courtroom bubble up. 

The prosecution takes issue with a couple of questions it thinks are too broad to probe bias, including Question 41, which asks jurors if they have read, watched, or listened to any media involving Trump. On the latter question, the prosecution suggests this would include anyone who has watched a newscast in the past eight years, which wins another smile from Justice Merchan. 

More hopeful now, Justice Merchan wonders aloud whether there’s more agreement between the two parties on the questionnaire than before, and whether the defense and prosecution can hammer out the remaining issues out of court.

He may have spoken too soon. An argument arises from the two final questions, which the prosecution argues are a crude proxy for party affiliation—wholly inappropriate in a case that is not supposed to be about politics. Question 42 asks whether jurors or anyone close to them contributed to any political campaign or PAC, and Question 43 asks jurors whether they have ever had a bumper sticker on their car or signs in their yard for certain candidates.

“We can’t ignore the elephant in the room,” Blanche says. “President Trump is running for president. He is affiliated with a political party.” Pointing out that Trump was a Republican president now being tried by a “Democrat District Attorney,” Blanche concludes that “whether we like it or not, a juror’s political affiliation has to be something that we know and understand.”

Blanche then attempts to distill the questionnaire disputes into a single question. “There’s a 12-page questionnaire, but what we really want to know, and what they really want to know,”—he gestures toward the prosecution—“is, ‘Do you like President Trump?’” 

Justice Merchan offers a procedural warning here, reminding each side that they only get ten peremptory challenges for jury selection for this class of felony. So if they intend to strike on party affiliation, those ten challenges will run out quickly. 

Steinglass takes issue with Blanche’s assertion, saying a bit forcefully that his side is “emphatically not interested” in asking jurors whether they like Trump or not, instead interested in fairness and impartiality. Justice Merchan agrees that it’s inappropriate to ask jurors their personal feelings on Trump. Blanche backpedals, careful to say that while he is not literally asking to include a question on whether or not jurors like Trump, asking their political affiliation is “unusual but appropriate.” 

At 10:43, just over an hour into the hearing, Justice Merchan says that’s all he has on his agenda and asks if there’s anything else from either side. Blanche asks for a minute to confer with Trump and co-counsel. This is the only request for a delay he makes today that is granted. He crouches down and returns to the podium after a brief conversation.

Blanche begins to raise an issue that Trump apparently had reminded him of, but Justice Merchan interrupts him, with apologies, remembering that the prosecution wanted to discuss a few points of courtroom logistics. Several people in the gallery sit back in their chairs, seemingly disappointed for not being able to hear whatever it was that Trump himself wanted to discuss.

That disappointment seems to grow as the prosecution raises banal questions including the defense and prosecution’s respective table sizes (referred to as an “asymmetric real estate problem”), audio/visual issues (both sides are welcome to come in and test out the courtroom tech), and how the jury will sit in the box (two rows of nine in the box).

Justice Merchan now makes a request for the two sides to come together to write a one paragraph overview of the case he can read to jurors—but doesn’t seem hopeful that this will happen. The judge continues to walk through logistical details, including off days on Wednesdays and a court recess on April 29.

Blanche cuts in with an open-ended question about upcoming Jewish holidays and New York City school closures, including spring break. Sensing a regression, Justice Merchan replies sharply, “What are you asking?” He seems to be getting a whiff of yet another attempt at delay from Trump’s attorneys, and he doesn’t like it. He cuts off the conversation, saying he’ll work with them but that he has to be mindful of jurors’ time. In other words, this trial is going to be efficient and on schedule.

Finally, we arrive at the last issue of the day: the trial exhibit list. As the prosecution hands up and over the exhibit list package, which contains a list of 336 exhibits the prosecution intends to introduce at trial, Trump leans back in his chair and looks back at the gallery for the first time.

Having produced his side’s exhibit list, Steinglass accuses the defense of denying its reciprocal discovery obligations and asks Justice Merchan for sanctions, including preclusion from trial, if the defense continues to do so.

For the first time in the hearing, Blanche defers to his co-counsel Susan Necheles, who rises to respond to Steinglass, whom she last faced off against in the 2022 Trump Organization trial. “We understand our obligation,” she says. “Our obligation is a responsive one.” 

Justice Merchan is not sympathetic to the defense’s argument on this issue either. He remarks how unusual it is for the defense not to have identified a single exhibit at this stage in the game. Blanche returns to protest, attempting to put things in perspective by saying that the government has been investigating this case for six years, yet is still issuing discovery, albeit sparsely. Justice Merchan shuts him down once again; he’s heard enough. 

Before adjourning, Justice Merchan asks each side whether they have anything to add. Blanche mounts one last ditch effort, rising to “strenuously object to everything happening in this courtroom.” He is incensed once again at the fact that his client will spend two months on this trial rather than on the campaign trail. 

Justice Merchan has had enough. “What’s your legal argument?” he asks Blanche.

Blanche responds that was his legal argument.

“That’s not a legal argument,” Merchan declares. “Anything else? No? Then I’ll see you March 25.”

At 11:08, Merchan gavels hearing to a close.

In almost any other courtroom, with any other defendant, everyone in the gallery would rise as Justice Merchan leaves. But in this courtroom, with this defendant, we all stay seated, at the orders of the police officers and Secret Service scattered throughout the room.

We also remain seated as the former president gets up and walks down the aisle of the gallery to the courtroom doors—which will reopen in just 39 days to mark the start of Trump’s criminal trial.

Tyler McBrien is the managing editor of Lawfare. He previously worked as an editor with the Council on Foreign Relations and a Princeton in Africa Fellow with Equal Education in South Africa, and holds an MA in international relations from the University of Chicago.

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